Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Material Culture and the Empty Nest

As soon as my son woke up, I ushered him into the kitchen and told him, “wait here.”  I set up the Jimmy Neutron (a cartoon character he loved) walking toy out of sight.  I then gave him a remote control and told him to push the top button. He mashed the button and heard a whirring sound.  He craned his head to see what was going on and soon saw Jimmy emerge from hiding and ‘walked’ into the kitchen.  My son had a beautiful smile and a gift of love was offered.

Yesterday, I stood in my garage holding the dusty gray and orange toy wondering what to do.  My son was now in his second year of college and my daughter was about to go off to college in a few weeks.  I was cleaning the garage and deeply connected with the artifacts around me.  It was in the garage where we built machines and toys, inventions and weapons, boats and carts.  The floor showed epoxy and paint stains from our work.  There were wooden craft projects and gadgets made from all sorts of things.  There were materials that I saved and stacks of broken radio controlled toys that I was going to use “some day.”

Getting rid of these things was sad but necessary as I prepare for the empty nest.  The dusty things I held one more time were valuable because of the memories connected with them. They had attributes that ran deep. I felt the clenching in my stomach as my mind sent the sorrow outward.

An interesting book end to this reflection on my kids’ (and my) building projects is my desire to give gifts.  A few days ago I returned from India and was excited to give the souvenirs I acquired to loved ones.  Giving these items away produced a deep satisfaction that did not make sense.  It seemed to be a completion of a journey and tangible expression of closure.  The same feeling arises when I make gifts – I am excited to give them to their owner.  The excitement doesn’t make sense, my work is not that good.  However, it the communication of love that gives this exchange its value.  I built something with my hands and gave it to the person for whom it was built.  It is a beautiful, nonverbal love song and it imbues the object with a value that is normally preserved for at least a generation. 

Of course we are humbled that sentiment most likely ends up at the discount rack in the antique store.  But not always.  I was at a small library where I used to live and came across some self published poems.  They were beautiful.  They were lost in this tiny library – and who reads poetry anyway?  But we had this conversation across the years and I appreciated the poet’s work.  I keep my grandfather’s binoculars, although I never met him.  It is something to touch.  We need that.  As a Christian, I have to fight the desire to touch God through man made artifacts.

While it seems difficult to experience love without a material object associated with it, we see this in family life where marriage is a relationship that lies well beyond the exchange of rings and children are much more than can be expressed by dusty toys and framed photographs.

The sorrow and reflection of dealing with materials connected to the delightful years of child rearing is fully embraced in the study of material culture.  Material culture attributes cultural identity to material things.  That is, people understand material objects as they have been learned from their culture and one is compelled to understand the relationship between material objects, their meaning, and group identity.  Filial piety can be reflected in how traditions tap into previous generation’s work.  We honor our grandmother with Christmas cookies.

Yesterday in the garage I was not just studying material culture, I was feeling it.  Wow.